Maybe your S.M.A.R.T Goals aren’t so Smart?

Graphic of word "Goals"
Image courtesy of Renjith Krishnan / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I used to be a big proponent of S.M.A.R.T goals, in fitness and strength training, and other aspects of life too.

For those of you not familiar with the acronym, S.M.A.R.T stands for the following:

  • S – Specific
  • M – Measurable
  • A – Achievable
  • R – Realistic
  • T – Time Bound

Some typical examples of S.M.A.R.T goals in relation to fitness and strength training might include:

  • Running the next 10km in your city (set date) in under 45 mins
  • Losing 5kg before next year’s beach holiday in July
  • Deadlifting 2.5 x your own bodyweight within the next 6 months

Effective goal setting is central to the philosophies of most popular strength training and fitness regimes – the rational being that you follow a routine to achieve a specific objective – be it aesthetic, performance and/or health related, and that focusing on the outcome will help you stay motivated, and stick to the program.

Without a clear destination, it is argued, you will not get anywhere. To be successful, you must have a plan, and follow it to the letter.

A is for Arbitrary

Answers are never black and white. I have in the past used S.M.A.R.T goals for both myself, and clients, with great success, particularly for those just starting out with a new fitness routine, sport or activity. It can, and does work, for many people, in many cases.

In our society we are conditioned from an early age to strive towards and endless succession of goals – you study at school in order to pass exams, you pass exams to get into university, you go to university to get a degree, you get a degree to get a good job, you get a good job to earn money, you earn money to buy nice things, you buy nice things to be happy…

It is therefore no wonder that we feel reassured by having a goal to work towards when it comes to fitness training too.

Over the years however, I have become more and more disillusioned with a focus on specific end goals, and set paths to reach them, for a number of reasons.

  • Life is a journey, not a destination

My main bugbear with focusing exclusively on the end goal, or destination, is that it can turn the path or journey which takes you there into an arduous and unfulfilling chore.

The human psyche is a complex beast – of course, everyone is different – but in general terms, make an action mandatory and obligatory, and it ceases to be fun and enjoyable, and instead becomes work.

It is for this same reason that school turns so many people off science, history, geography and languages – subjects which can and should be enthralling, but instead become loathsome and dreary.

Personally, if I feel I have to do X reps of Exercise A today, then more on Wednesday, and more next week, regardless of how I feel, or what else is going on in my life, or whatever other options might present themselves, it all just becomes rather boring and even stressful.

  • There will always be factors outside of your control

To paraphrase Robert Burns – “The best laid plans of mice and men, often go awry”

The stress mentioned above is compounded by the fact that we all know that the results are not guaranteed.

Perhaps on paper, the plan looks simple and effective: just make these small incremental improvements each week for the next 3 months, and voila, goal achieved.

The problem is we all have different genetics, different priorities, different responsibilities, and we’re all subject to random occurrences outside of our control.

What works for one person, might not work for someone else. What might work for you in some circumstances, might be derailed by illness, injury, or other such things life might throw at you.

One is bound to ask oneself the question – what if I’m doing all this for nothing?

  • What happens when you reach your goal?

Perhaps even worse than failing to reach your goal due to unforeseen/uncontrollable circumstances, is actually achieving it!

What happens once you’ve won that race, got that six pack, achieved that PR?

Are you now finally happy? Does life have more meaning? Were the last few months or years of toil suddenly all worthwhile?

Now you can do handstand press ups and bend metal bars with your teeth are you more popular with your peers, and fighting off advances from the opposite sex?

The mentality behind most fitness programs is “I have to do this workout now, so that I get stronger and leaner – when I am stronger and leaner, then I will be happy”.

The problem with this concept is that the future is, by definition, in the future, while we are in the present (physically at least).

  • It’s Now or Never!

There is only ever the here and now. If you are not happy now, within yourself, doing what you are doing, there is little point in hoping that you will be happy in the future if only you achieve this goal or that goal, particularly if the pursuit of that goal makes you even more miserable along the way.

  • So should I just go down in a blaze of hedonism?

Based on the above, should you abandon all hope, and go down in a binge of pizza, ice-cream and whiskey whilst watching back to back box sets on the sofa, fully submitting to the easy and guaranteed pleasure of instant gratification?

I have been down that path, and while it is fun for a short period, it soon grows rather dull and tiresome, and yet again fails to bring real happiness or fulfilment.

  • It’s not goals which are the problem, but your attachment to them

The problem is not goals, per se, but placing too much importance on their achievement and the happiness this will bring.

My training might not be so S.M.A.R.T any more, but I still have goals.

I’m working towards a Press to Handstand to Planche, which you might spot in this very cool video, along with lots of other amazing feats of strength, flexibility and balance:

If I manage it, I will no doubt be very pleased with myself, and will have a huge grin on my face. What’s more important to me, however, is that I enjoy the journey. That I enjoy the process of training towards it, to the point that it doesn’t really seem like training, or even practice, but play.

I don’t tie myself down to having to practice for a set period of time, or follow a structured program of so many sets and reps, but go with how I feel. If I’m not in the mood, then I’ll do something else instead. More often than not, however, the freedom of knowing I don’t have to train, makes me more inclined to want to train! Rather than having to force myself to do one more set, I find myself having to force myself to stop, and go do some work instead…

Another goal of mine is to run an ultra-marathon of 100k-100 miles. In the past I’ve made running a real chore by obsessing over trying to beat previous times or hit arbitrary targets such as sub 40 min 10ks.

Fortunately I’ve managed to rekindle my love of the trails – there’s really few things I love more than being out in the hills and mountains, just enjoying being in the moment. There’s no need to measure your distance or your speed, as at the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter. If I want to stop to enjoy the scenery, climb a tree or jump in a lake, why shouldn’t I? Who cares if you’re a bit slower than last time. Ironically, however, I think I’m now probably faster than ever. Or maybe not, who knows!

The point is, that even if I come last in the actual ultra, or even DNF, I’ve had countless hours of pure pleasure running free on the trails, simply enjoying being in the moment, surrounded by nature and moving instinctively and in tune with my body, not trying to shoehorn myself into a template or schedule which promises to make me a success 6 months down the line.

  • The number one goal should be to enjoy the journey

I remember from a few years ago, Dan John repeating the mantra “The goal is to keep the goal the goal”, or words to that effect, in one of his videos.

While I’m sure there is wisdom and utility in that aphorism for many people, in many situations, I don’t feel it works for me any longer.

Personally, my goal is to be happy now – to live in the moment – to move freely and play – to enjoy the journey, as well as revel in wherever it might take me – to live now, thrive later…

Thanks for reading, I hope you found this post of interest. I would love to hear your thoughts and comments below, or feel free to tweet me at @Simon_Whyatt

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